Fashion’s Existential Crisis: Questioning the Growth Imperative

Major fashion brands might be exploring ways to lower their environmental impact, but there is one cold hard truth they can’t avoid: for many, the amount of product they produce is ultimately unsustainable. Protecting the planet means scaling back – writer and consultant Rachel Arthur explores what this post-growth economic model could look like for the fashion industry. 

As stores begin to reopen, manufacturing resumes and shopping is actively encouraged in order to bolster the economy off the back of the COVID-19 pandemic, environmentalists in the fashion sector are urging the industry not to return to business-as-usual.

“This system was so unsustainable and needed a big shock. And shocks are never gentle; they throw all the pieces everywhere. But that’s a huge opportunity to change,” says Livia Firth, Eco-Age’s co-founder and creative director. Despite the magnitude of impact brought about by the crisis, the enforced pause it has created presents a moment to rethink priorities.

Let’s start with the basics: The winners in this industry have traditionally been those operating on high volume, low costs and in-built obsolescence. Fashion lives and breathes the expansionist model, shifting anywhere from 80-150 billion items of clothing every year. As we’ve seen from the pandemic, an overnight halt in production has left textile orders worth billions of dollars at a standstill and the subsequent livelihoods of those throughout the supply chain at risk.  

Yet this crisis right now is nothing compared to what could come down the line with climate change. If we fail to reduce carbon emissions in order to hit the Paris Agreement goals to keep global warming below the critical 1.5° Celsius increase, catastrophic impact to people and planet is predicted.

To put it into context, at pre-pandemic pace, the fashion industry’s greenhouse gas emissions were estimated to surge more than 50% by 2030, per the United Nations Environment Programme and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. That sits alongside the fact the industry is expected to grow 81% in the same time period, according to the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA).

And therein lies the issue. Despite sustainability having become a key topic of conversation in the industry, solutions to date are not being implemented fast enough to counterbalance the harmful impact of the rapid growth we are otherwise seeing, according to the GFA’s Pulse of the Fashion Industry report in 2019.

Luxury group Kering is a prime example. A story in the Business of Fashion highlights that while it reduced its footprint by 12% in 2018 as a proportion of revenue compared to a year earlier, on an absolute basis that was fully offset by the company’s growth. Its progress is thus “limited by its success”.  

This is leading to somewhat of an existential crisis for those working towards sustainable progress, suggests Emma Foster-Geering, head of sustainability at footwear brand Vivobarefoot.

“How is overconsumption and overproduction of this thing, even if it’s slightly better than the thing before it, sustainable?” she asks, talking to her wide variety of experience across businesses including Burberry and Primark. “We’re the worst person in the company in many ways because we compromise constantly. It’s a little bit better than it was, so go ahead, put this sticker on it, tell this story… We’re allowing companies to get away with these things hundreds of times a day.”

Even Patagonia, a name known for leading in the sustainability space, frequently acknowledges the same issue. “No matter how many sustainability initiatives we implement, the trends are showing they are insufficient,” Rick Ridgeway, VP of environmental affairs at the company told The Atlantic back in 2015. “When you look at these long-term trends, you can’t help but conclude that somehow, some way, consumption is going to change—and it’s going to have to go down.”

At the root of the issue is a belief that decarbonisation can come about significantly enough on the one hand that we can keep pushing more volume on the other.

That isn’t unique to fashion. The ability to decouple economic or GDP growth from ecological impact is a topic of keen global debate and has led to what’s known as the post-growth or degrowth movement within economic theory.

This counters the so-called ‘green growth’ argument, which believes new technologies and efficiencies will enable us to reduce global emissions to hit those Paris Agreement goals. Instead, it contests net reduction can’t occur when business keeps expanding at such pace, calling for a fundamental rethink on levels of consumption and production.

“The speed at which resource and emission efficiencies have to improve if we are to meet carbon targets are at best heroic, if the economy is growing relentlessly,” writes economist Tim Jackson, professor at the University of Surrey, in his book, Prosperity Without Growth.

He says the only option then is to question growth itself. “Efficiency cannot outrun scale,” he told me, suggesting fashion has to think about producing less.

But talking about that to fashion is an anathema. “It’s the ultimate elephant in the room,” says Faith Robinson, a fashion consultant and the creator of the @post_growth Instagram account. “These brands deal in volume. It’s irrelevant to introduce scaling down to a business that defines success by scaling up. [They] aren’t interested in being smaller.”

One luxury business I spoke to, despite pushing extremely hard on the sustainability agenda, said they’d never had a conversation internally about rethinking growth; and that the intention right now amid the COVID-19 pandemic is rather focused on how to get back to it as soon as possible.

As per Jackson in his book: “Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries. But question it we must.”

The challenge here is that this conversation brings into question the very capitalist system we live by. Fashion, like all consumer categories, is part of a construct anchored in growth and driven by shareholder primacy. Could we ever consider any other way?

For many, there’s no choice but to. “Is it reasonable to ask the industry to produce less in order to survive?” asks Céline Semaan, founder of Slow Factory. “For us to be able to continue this existence here on this planet and provide value to future generations, we have to adapt to the situation. We can’t pretend it’s not happening. What’s unreasonable is to continue this exploitation of our resources.”

“There is no business to be done on a dead planet,” adds Kate Fletcher, professor at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, explaining that infinite growth within a finite system is fundamentally flawed. Every year, we are consuming the earth’s natural resources 1.75 times faster than it can regenerate them, according to the Global Footprint Network.

Complementing degrowth and post-growth theory, Fletcher is proposing we expunge growth logic, and instead consider ‘Earth Logic’; an action plan she authored with Mathilda Tham, professor at Linnaeus University, Sweden. This is a systemic reworking that puts the earth first. It recommends various routes to doing so, ranging from localism to governance, and notably, reducing production and consumption.

As Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, explains: “We’re currently operating in a model that needs growth at any cost. It’s a classic systemic challenge. If we’re going to shift from the extractive growth model – then the goals of the system need to change.”

As highlighted in a story I wrote on this subject for Vogue Business, a handful of small businesses with sustainability in mind are already thinking this way, reducing their output for the sake of the planet. Included are Vivienne Westwood, Teatum Jones and Mara Hoffman. Eileen Fisher is also referenced in a story for the Business of Fashion, saying her company was at its most profitable when it was half its current size.

One thing seemingly uniting these designers is thus reimagining what success looks like. As per Vivienne Westwood: “We can sell less, but sell better, and still be profitable.”

We’re seeing some businesses choosing not to grow anymore. They see that they are scaled just right. It mirrors what we see in ecosystems – they grow to fulfil their niche, rather than growing beyond that to their peril,” says Fletcher.

But most of these businesses are not only small, they’re privately run, meaning they don’t have the pressure of shareholder returns that large, public corporations do. Can this idea of producing less then, ever be a reality at scale? And can it be particularly for the fast fashion corporations peddling mass consumerism the hardest? 

It’s worth recognising that reduction in fashion is a nuanced discussion. There’s the option for smaller collection sizes as demonstrated with some of the designers mentioned above, but so too are there significant other areas where the industry can improve. COVID-19 has only emphasised the volume of orders held up in the supply chain – the overproduction and waste that infers – and the deadstock sat in distribution centres and retail stores around the world. Rethinking growth therefore, also needs to be about removing some of this excess and the way it further feeds overconsumption and the rising landfill problem.

Arguably circular business models are a key conversation here, which is what the likes of Patagonia are particularly pushing. But Fletcher and Tham believe there isn’t enough time left for this to scale to the level of impact needed within the next 10 years; that while circular innovations are increasingly interesting, there isn’t proof yet of such models working and they’re likewise still being outpaced by cumulative growth in production. 

As per Jackson’s reference to lunatics and revolutionaries, reducing growth – especially when we start talking about the big players in this industry – is immediately met with concern around slowing the economy. If we scale down, unemployment typically ensues. In the global south particularly, as we’re seeing through this pandemic, that has huge ramifications.

This was the line taken in late 2019 by Karl-Johan Persson, then H&M Group CEO, when he said reducing fast fashion would have dire social consequences. Referring instead to the green growth ideology, he called for “environmental innovation, renewable energy, improved materials” over a moratorium on consumption.

According to Jackson, this presents a challenge but shouldn’t be an excuse for sheer volume.  “The [fashion] industry’s self-justification for mass consumerism is completely indefensible in light of the way the supply chain divides revenues between those who take profit and those who do the work.”

The H&M comments were immediately met with pushback by numerous groups, including Labour Behind the Label. “Persson’s claim that fast fashion supports the eradication of poverty is outrageous, considering not a single worker in H&M’s supplier factories earns a living wage,” read its statement.

The Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion (of which Fletcher and Tham are two of four co-founders), also said: “This type of have-it-all environmentalism, achieved through market forces and satisfying growing consumer yearnings, is wholly incompatible with the reality of biophysical planetary limits. Persson suggests that workers would suffer under ‘de-growth’ or ‘don’t buy’ conditions. The reality is that the business model Persson promotes, which is utterly dependent upon extracting, processing and wasting natural resources at increasingly greater volumes, would suffer.”

They also highlighted that it is those working in these conditions who often fall victim to the consequences of climate change the most, despite being the least responsible for it. Indeed, at a time when protests regarding Black Lives Matter are resonating on a global scale, inequalities have never been more pressing as a part of this conversation. As per another story in Vogue, written by environmentalist Leah Thomas, the ways in which injustices happen to marginalised communities and the earth are interconnected. She refers to the idea of ‘intersectional environmentalism’ – an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. 

Thus these conversations have to go hand-in-hand. It’s not enough to say we need to protect jobs in order to justify the scale of damage being caused through volume of material throughput. Though neither is it as simple as just cutting volumes overnight. “As we’ve discovered with COVID-19’s sudden stop, it’s extraordinarily painful when it’s not planned,” says Fletcher. “A planned shift to a degrowth position, would be a purposeful selection of different activity, which would mean it makes more financial [and social] sense.”

Morten Lehmann, chief sustainability officer at the GFA, believes unpicking this conversation is crucial, which is why ‘reimagining value’ is this year’s theme for the Copenhagen Fashion Summit it runs. “New business models ahead will need a very different labour and workforce. [With climate disruption] we will need to be prepared for this… Protecting old fashioned jobs just delays the pain.”

Interestingly, H&M recently said it is ‘reimagining growth’ in its latest sustainability report. While this doesn’t mean it believes it needs to produce less (as told to me by its press team), it says it is bullish on new circular business models and on the idea it must produce within planetary boundaries.

This is one way to get around the idea that foregoing growth is in direct conflict with a responsibility to provide increasing returns for shareholders. Proposed by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2009, the planetary boundaries cover nine quantitative levels we mustn’t cross in order for earth and life on it to continue to thrive. Included are climate change, chemical pollution, ocean acidification and land system change, all of which the business of fashion somehow directly or indirectly affects.  

Such considerations play into B Corporations – businesses that have become certified and continue to meet standards around balancing people, planet and profit combined. Within the fashion sector, examples of B Corps include Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, MUD Jeans and Athleta.

“It’s about reframing business,” explains Chris Turner, executive director of B Lab UK, the social enterprise behind the certification. “[Being a B Corp means] you can’t just grow by making more stuff and selling it, you have to bring in more people to the business and you have to minimise any negative impact on the environment.”

The result is very much pro-business, he explains. Rather than stopping or inhibiting growth, he wants businesses to “think about growth in terms of positive impact”. He goes so far as to say that the challenge gaining B Corp certification presents (it is notoriously hard to get) is exactly the challenge volume retailers should be addressing.

This focus on people, planet and profit, is otherwise known as the Triple Bottom Line, a management concept coined by author and sustainability advisor John Elkington in 1994. Yet Elkington himself has recently recalled the TBL term, suggesting it has been adopted in the main as an accounting tool with a trade-off mentality that often still sees the financial side winning out.

“Whereas CEOs, CFOs, and other corporate leaders move heaven and earth to ensure that they hit their profit targets, the same is very rarely true of their people and planet targets. Clearly, the Triple Bottom Line has failed to bury the single bottom line paradigm,” he wrote. He goes further again saying his intended goal was about system change, “pushing toward the transformation of capitalism” itself.

COVID-19 may well be the moment the world sits up and takes note. The World Economic Forum, for instance, is calling for a “Great Reset” of capitalism off the back of the pandemic. It is warning that some countries are using the crisis as an excuse to weaken environmental protections and restrictions, as well as intensify social inequalities, urging both governments and the private sector to transform.  

As Jackson told me for Vogue Business: “We should be incentivising the right kind of recovery through this.” In the UK, 200 CEOs have called for the government to “build back better” and not support those without a climate plan.

Fashion is notable here by its absence, however. So how do we start getting such a large contributor to the climate crisis to truly take this seriously rather than making sustainable tweaks in a bid to maintain business-as-usual? “[Fashion] can play an important role in sustainable development in economies around the world. But for any transformation to happen, for any systemic change, one of those features for change is mindset change,” notes Uren. 

The pandemic presents us with the opportunity to begin that different future. As per the World Economic Forum: “Tragedy need not be its only legacy. On the contrary, the pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world to create a healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous future.”